If you needed a 30-second review of The Wanderers, I’d offer what my companion said as soon as the lights came up: “If you found yourself in a room with any of these people, you’d pull the fire alarm to escape.” If you’re after a more detailed appraisal, buckle up.
Anna Ziegler’s tedious new play—which comes to New York via Roundabout Theatre Company, after productions in Washington, D.C., and San Diego—considers the perils of professional success, religious observance, and marital bonds. Each topic is complex and layered enough to warrant its own investigation, but this slim traversal rarely lingers long enough in any given mode to chart fully the disconnect between the weight of expectation and the tricky truths of human nature. Ziegler makes points that fall short of becoming revelations.
The plot centers on two couples who, despite outward differences, find themselves shouldering similar burdens. In present-day New York, long married Abe (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Sophie (Sarah Cooper) find their lives in an uncomfortable rut. Both authors at varying levels of success—he has a Pulitzer, her novel floundered—they begin to grow apart as Abe pursues a flirtatious email correspondence with Julia Cheever (Katie Holmes), an actress who expresses interest in his work.
A generation earlier, Esther (Lucy Freyer) and Schmuli (Dave Klasko), Orthodox Jews in an arranged marriage, wrestle not just with the expectations of growing to love one another but the uncertainty of their places within a rigidly structured community. Ziegler presents them both as searching people, him more progressive than other men, her longing to become a librarian. Their open-minded attitudes set a course to determine how far each will bend from what has been expected of them since birth.
Both stories take place in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, though you wouldn’t know it from Marion Williams’s abstract, static set, which consists primarily of a wall-length sheath of onion-skinned papers before a few pieces of functional furniture. As the action is grounded primarily in realism, there needs to be more that directly signifies the worlds in which these characters operate, which also don’t come across through David Israel Reynoso’s bland costumes. (Why does it look like Julia is always wearing pajamas?) Only Jane Shaw’s klezmer-tinged original score comes close to communicating an authentic glimpse of the cultures at play.
What’s harder to overcome, though, is a sense that the stakes are imbalanced. Even when they rise to the level of emotional infidelity, Abe and Sophie’s foibles don’t compare to the reckoning Esther and Schmuli face when they question the very foundation of their spiritual and social lives. Ziegler wants to draw parallels between Abe’s online dalliance with Julia and Esther’s potential escape into the secular world, but the resonance is nowhere near as deep.
Perhaps because of this, Esther emerges as the sole character with three solid dimensions, and Freyer gives the production’s most fully realized performance. She charts heartbreakingly how the possibility of the unknown calcifies into just another disappointment—how radically changing your life won’t in fact solve all your problems. Freyer’s transformation from wide-eyed seeker to hardened pragmatist is rendered superbly.
The other performers, under Barry Edelstein’s direction, are not on her level. In her third stage outing, Holmes continues to lack a general sense of presence, and she seems wan in a role that calls for some grandeur and star quality. Cooper, a comedian making her New York debut, understands timing instinctively; she knows when to hold for a laugh. But she struggles to shade her underdrawn character, and her thin stage voice is not consistently audible. Thomas and Klasko come across as two sides of the same whiny coin.
Ziegler divides the proceedings into various chapters, each focused on a specific theme (marriage, children, boredom, etc.). After a while, it seems as if this material might be better realized as a novel, and not simply because of the script’s overreliance on direct-address narration to propel the action, such as there is any. The brief action of the play rarely burrows beneath the skins of the characters in a way that would make them compelling and memorable. Perhaps more pages, and more prose, would do the trick.
Instead of feeling deeply invested in the struggles presented here, I spent most of The Wanderers waiting for the painstakingly calibrated plot twists to resolve. (Ziegler stacks the script with surprise turns, but a savvy audience member will find themselves several steps ahead at all times.) It’s hard to care about people who lack depth and situations that don’t hold much gravity. The play’s title holds a religious and cultural significance, but in point of fact, the storytelling doesn’t really wander. It meanders.